OCI #9: Free-Flowing Energy
What can massage therapy and manufacturing tell us about successful change?
This newsletter focuses on bringing insights from other fields into the world of organizational change management. Today’s intersections: Massage/somatic therapy, the Theory of Constraints, and a little dose of Appreciative Inquiry.
When an organization or an individual strives toward greater health, one of the important indicators of progress is a freer flow of energy toward desired goals. For an individual, this can show up as greater psychological and physical ease and stamina. In an organization, it often takes the form of increased excitement and employees' willingness to invest more of their discretionary energy in making things work well. This means that part of our job in leading and managing change is to be attentive to the movement of energy through the system.
Releasing Tension in the Body
Somewhere along my journey, I went to massage school. One of the lessons I learned there is that tight muscles and “knots” can signal a place where the body is holding on to tension, emotions, or experiences, and needs to be reminded to let go. The work of the massage therapist is to identify these places and, rather than force them to release, invite the client to bring awareness to them and let the muscles relax. (Other related fields, including a range of somatic (body-centered) therapies and movement techniques, explore similar concepts.)
Pause for a moment and notice where you might be holding tension in your body. Shoulders? Jaw? Lower back and hips? Take a deep breath, hold it, and as you let it out, see if you can feel some of the tension melting away. Move, twist, circle your shoulders, bend and sway…notice whether any of these changes in your body show up in your thoughts and feelings as well. And if you want a really interesting diversion, explore the concept of “body armoring,” introduced by Wilhelm Reich, which describes how our characteristic individual patterns of coping with stressors can show up as movement restrictions in the body.
The Theory of Constraints
As I thought about the topic of movement and energy, it reminded me of the Theory of Constraints (TOC), an approach to improving the performance of systems that was originally developed in the manufacturing arena1. TOC suggests that you need to identify the thing that is most limiting flow through a system (imagine the narrowest place in a pipe, or the slowest machine in a series of manufacturing steps), and focus all your attention on addressing that limitation (widening that place in the pipe; speeding up that machine), rather than trying to optimize or fix multiple elements of the system at once. Once you've done that, things will flow better, and something else will show up as the next "bottleneck." You address that, and then you go on to the next.
Constraints in Organizational Change
What if we apply this thinking to organizational change? The same basic logic applies. Think about the way energy needs to flow through the system to achieve the goals of an initiative. When you're in the midst of a major organizational change, a lot of things might be affecting progress. We often work on them simultaneously, seeking to optimize everything. What if we took a lesson from TOC & massage, and brought our attention to releasing one “knot” at a time?
Can you identify your biggest change bottleneck at this moment? Is the biggest barrier a lack of clarity about the desired state? Is there discomfort about the new way of operating? Do leaders lack the time to do their part in the implementation process? Is there a cultural norm that runs counter to the new approach? Technology problems? Skill gaps in key individuals? We often try to fix all these things at once, when we might be better served to pick the greatest limitation, focus our resources on getting it fixed, and then go on to the next.
A number of years ago, I was involved in a project looking at change-related overload in a large organization. We had completed an inventory of initiatives, and done a “heat map” of the impact on the various groups within the organization2. However, we realized we were assuming that individual energy availability was the greatest constraint. So we also did some estimates of change agent support requirements and sponsor time/energy requirements for each initiative. Can you guess which of these we found to be the greatest constraint on the effective flow of change?3
Not surprisingly, there are some predictable patterns of energy flow. Over time I have noticed that the biggest constraints, limiting factors, or risks in change initiatives typically vary according to the phase of the project. Think about the various elements you focus on—vision, case for change, sponsorship, communication, skill development, etc. Can you predict which issues are most likely to show up early, and which ones will emerge as larger constraints as you go?
Give it a try! This grid is an example of how you might think this through. It lists a bunch of risk factors/success factors along the left-hand side and 4 phases of the implementation process along the top. (I’ve removed the names of the specific elements and phases in the original model to focus attention on the grid itself.) As you can see, there are some challenges that typically crop up early (red) that—if all goes well—are reduced (gray) or eliminated (white) as time goes on. There are other constraints that arise in the middle phases, and a few that need special attention all the way through to the end. What would this grid look like based on your own experiences with change? How might this help you think about your current primary constraint? How might unaddressed issues from previous phases create constraints for you in the current situation?
Now let’s move from the broad (change initiatives in general) to the specific (your current situation). What is the biggest bottleneck in your initiative right now? What would happen if you focused your resources on addressing that one issue, and then moving to the next challenge that arises?
Making it Personal
This same logic is true for individuals as well. If you are trying to enhance your overall well-being, it's sometimes tempting to try to change everything at once. Eating habits, exercise habits, relationships, job, etc. Instead, what might happen if you can identify what is most getting in the way of your energy flowing freely, and give that your full attention? Get your sleep habits—for example—in order first, and then step back and see what’s next. As you get things moving in one area, you will likely free up some energy that you can apply to the next challenge.
If you are working as a coach or consultant, helping an individual or team make progress toward a goal, you can use this same thinking. What is the one thing that will benefit most from focused attention?
It’s Not as Easy as it Looks
While this notion is appealing and simple in concept, it's not always easy to figure out what that "one thing" is. The symptoms don't always show up where the problem is. As an example, massage clients often complain of sore upper back, neck, and shoulders. You'd think that the answer would be to work on the areas that hurt, right? Not so fast! It turns out that this is often a situation where the back muscles hurt because they are overstretched due to muscles and fascia in the chest and shoulder area that are too tight. This is a common syndrome for people who sit at desks and work at computers a lot. The issue that really needs to be addressed is the tightness in the chest area, which can be done through a combination of massage, stretches (here's one), and changes in posture.
Likewise, in an organization, we may think the problem is people resisting a particular change, while the real problem is that leadership lacks the discipline to set and communicate priorities, so everyone is confused and burned out. It's critical to dig around a bit to find out what the real issue is before taking action.
Flipping the Frame
Now that I have written this whole article, I have a confession to make. I am SO TIRED of hearing people ask me where I’m stuck/whether I’m stuck, and try to sell me some program or solution that is designed to help me get “unstuck.” So a big part of me really resists the whole notion of focusing attention on the constraints and “stuck places” in organizations.
Is there a different way to look at this? I think so. My recent sojourn into the world of Appreciative Inquiry has given me some new ideas, and some different questions to ask, that you might find helpful as well.
One of the things we did in my recent AI course was a “root causes of success” analysis. We took the classic “fishbone diagram/Ishikawa diagram” that is often used to explore the root causes of problems, and used the technique to explore the contributors to a successful/positive outcome. Not only was it energizing, but the process of thinking about what was going well, and the resources, actions, and approaches that had led to the positive outcome, identified ideas and possibilities we could apply in new ways in other areas.
Here are a few questions to help you focus on the free flow of energy in your organization, your life, and—sure, why not—your body:
—Where are things moving well in this initiative? What are some of the factors that are contributing to this healthy movement?
—Where do we seem to have plentiful resources to do what needs to be done? How are we applying these resources most effectively?
—Which groups or individuals appear to be deeply engaged in new ways of thinking and behaving? How is their enthusiasm spreading to those around them?
—Which leaders are most deeply inspiring their teams to action? What is contributing to their positive impact?
—Where do I have the greatest sense of ease in my life? What do I observe about the movement of energy, and how it feels for it to be flowing in this way? What can I identify as potential contributors to this sense of fluidity?
—What movements in my body come most naturally and feel most comfortable to me? Where do I feel loose and relaxed? What activities allow me to engage in these easy motions?
Fortunately, “stuck vs. flowing” is not an either/or question. They are both important. There are times when genuine limitations and blockages need to be addressed. (Sometimes there really is a hole in the bucket.) By becoming more skillful at recognizing and focusing resources on “bottlenecks,” we can increase the flow of energy toward success. At the same time, just as massage therapists notice and draw attention to the places where energy is strong and moving smoothly in the human body to help their clients broaden these healthy patterns, it’s important for us to pay attention to the effective flow of energy in organizational systems and build on the factors that are lifting us up and moving us forward. This allows us to spread positive movement to other parts of the system and further raise our ability to achieve our most important goals.
I hope you have enjoyed this issue of Organizational Change Intersections. See you again in two weeks!
Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s book The Goal is a straightforward and approachable introduction to this way of thinking.
As a side note, I have some personal reservations about this approach to change-related burnout and overload that have grown over the years, but that’s not today’s story. Stay tuned for more.
As I recall, the greatest constraint was change agent resources, which in turn placed pressure on sponsor bandwidth.